BOISE — The mayor of Idaho's largest city says local police will begin enforcing mask orders starting next week in an effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus.
Boise Mayor Lauren McLean announced the new public health order on Thursday, which instructs police to ticket or arrest people who refuse to wear masks and refuse to leave local businesses when asked. Businesses can also temporarily lose their business license if they pose a "clear and immediate threat" because staffers or customers aren't following mask orders. It goes into effect Nov. 23.
The capital city has been under a mask order since July, but so far it has gone unenforced. Coronavirus cases in Boise and across Idaho have been rising exponentially, and hospitals across the state are at or near capacity.
Hospital officials say they could be forced to enact crisis care rationing — choosing which critically ill patients to treat based on who is most likely to survive — within the next month.
More than 86,000 people in Idaho have been infected with coronavirus since the pandemic began, according to Johns Hopkins University data, and at least 812 residents have died from the virus. Those numbers only represent confirmed and probable cases — people who have tested positive or who have symptoms of COVID-19 after having close contact with a confirmed coronavirus case — and are likely an undercount. Some people who catch coronavirus never develop symptoms but are still contagious, making them likely to unknowingly spread the illness without ever seeking testing.
Idaho Gov. Brad Little has frequently urged residents to wear masks, practice social distancing and wash hands, but his pleas have gone largely ignored by many in the extremely conservative state.
Little has repeatedly declined to require masks and he continued to allow gatherings of up to 50 people until last week, when he announced gatherings of 10 or more would be prohibited. There are several exceptions to that rule, including religious, educational and political gatherings; and businesses can operate largely as normal provided people are seated at bars and restaurants and attempts to socially distance are made.
Health care experts and physicians have repeatedly warned residents and government leaders that the rising case count is overwhelming the medical care system. One in every 188 people in Idaho tested positive in the past week.
"What we are currently doing is not working. If we do not change our approach our health and economy will suffer," McLean's office wrote in the announcement.
The city will work with businesses to protect those that are requiring masks and to hold others accountable for refusing to follow public health orders, according to the announcement. If customers refuse to follow masking and distancing rules, workers can call the police.
"Boise can no longer allow people and businesses to undermine sacrifices others have made. That is why the city is reaching out to businesses to offer assistance when customers will not follow COVID-19 guidelines," McLean's office wrote.
Residents can also file a complaint against businesses if they aren't following the health order. That will trigger a city inspection for any businesses licensed by the city; complaints against businesses licensed by other entities will be referred to the local health department. City-licensed businesses that "are found to pose a clear and immediate threat to the health, safety and welfare of the public" can have their license suspended for 10 days — or up to a year for repeated violations.
The punishment for violating the order depends on the circumstances of each situation but would generally fall under charges of trespassing, mayor's office spokesman Seth Ogilvie said.
"Depending on the circumstances, trespass may be an infraction, punishable by a $300 fine, or a misdemeanor, punishable by up to six months in jail and a fine of $500-$1,000," he told the Idaho Press over email. "It could also be resolved with no penalty or charge at all."
Wayne Hoffman, president of the libertarian think tank and lobbying group Idaho Freedom Foundation, criticized the order, saying it would waste police resources and create conflict.
"Does the mayor want people calling the police on neighbors out for a walk without a face covering?" he said in a statement.
McLean, during a press huddle Thursday afternoon, called the new order a "scalpel," intended to keep businesses not following the mask order accountable for their actions while allowing other businesses who are following the order to stay open.
To truly beat back the virus, the rest of Idaho needed to take steps, McLean said. Boise is the only Treasure Valley city to require masks; Ada County is under a mask mandate per a Central District Health order.
"The specific strategies to prevent infection are universal face covering and social distancing," the White House Coronavirus Task Force said in its latest report, which offers recommendations to states.
"One city alone can't do everything that is needed to slow the spread of the virus," McClean said. "Our hope is that around the valley and around the state, we can see leaders step up to take action."
Idaho Press reporters Tommy Simmons and Thomas Plank contributed.
NEW YORK — With the coronavirus surging out of control, the nation’s top public health agency pleaded with Americans on Thursday not to travel for Thanksgiving and not to spend the holiday with people from outside their household.
The Thanksgiving warning from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention came as the White House coronavirus task force held a briefing for the first time in months and Vice President Mike Pence concluded it without responding to questions by reporters or urging Americans not to travel.
Other members of the task force — whose media briefings were a daily fixture during the early days of the outbreak — talked about the progress being made in the development of a vaccine.
Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said pharmaceutical companies Pfizer and BioNTech will seek emergency government approval for their coronavirus vaccine on Friday. And infection disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci sought to reassure the public that the vaccine is safe while still encouraging Americans to wear masks.
The CDC’s Thanksgiving warning was some of the firmest guidance yet from the government on curtailing traditional gatherings to fight the outbreak.
The CDC issued the recommendations just one week before Thanksgiving, at a time when diagnosed infections, hospitalizations and deaths are skyrocketing across the country. In many areas, the health care system is being squeezed by a combination of sick patients filling up beds and medical workers falling ill themselves.
The CDC’s Dr. Erin Sauber-Schatz cited more than 1 million new cases in the U.S. over the past week as the reason for the new guidance.
“The safest way to celebrate Thanksgiving this year is at home with the people in your household,” she said.
If families do decide to include returning college students, military members or others for turkey and stuffing, the CDC is recommending that the hosts take added precautions: Gatherings should be outdoors if possible, with people keeping 6 feet apart and wearing masks and just one person serving the food.
Whether Americans heed the warning is another matter. The deadly comeback by the virus has been blamed in part on pandemic fatigue, or people getting tired of masks and other precautions. And surges were seen last summer after Memorial Day and July Fourth, despite blunt warnings from health authorities.
The United States has had more than 11 million diagnosed infections and over 250,000 deaths from the coronavirus. CDC scientists believe that somewhere around 40% of people who are infected do not have obvious symptoms but can still spread the virus.
Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom on Thursday announced the imposition of an overnight curfew on most residents as the most populous state tries to head off a virus case surge that officials fears could tax the state’s health care system.
What officials called a limited stay-at-home order requires nonessential residents to stay home from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. starting Saturday. It lasts until Dec. 21 but could be extended. It covers 94% of the state’s nearly 40 million residents.
“The virus is spreading at a pace we haven’t seen since the start of this pandemic and the next several days and weeks will be critical to stop the surge. We are sounding the alarm,” Newsom said in a statement.
Also Thursday, Rhode Island Democratic Gov. Gina Raimondo announced a “two-week pause” with some businesses closures and capacity reduced for restaurants and houses of worship starting Nov. 30. Officials will reevaluate COVID-19 caseloads on Dec. 13 and if they have not eased, she said “a full state lockdown” will follow.
In New Hampshire, Republican Gov. Chris Sununu previously resisted calls for a statewide mask mandate but issued an order requiring face coverings to be worn in public spaces indoors and outdoors.
Hospitals are struggling to keep up with non-coronavirus cases ranging from broken bones to heart attacks in states where COVID-19 cases are tying up resources.
In Kansas, rural hospitals are running into difficulty trying to transfer patients to larger hospitals for more advanced care.
“Whether it is regular pneumonia or appendicitis or fractures that need surgery, they have a limited amount of beds in their facilities and they are not taking a lot of these routine cases,” said Perry Desbien, a nurse practitioner who works in Smith Center and other rural communities. “They are saying, ‘Send them home. Have them follow up in the office. Unless it is life-threatening, we don’t want to see them either.’”
Earlier this month, the Mayo Clinic Health System in Wisconsin announced it was suspending elective medical procedures.
Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker noted that with COVID-19 patients claiming a quarter of the state’s hospital beds, there are fewer resources for heart attack patients, expectant mothers or cancer patients.
“When we let our hospitals get overrun or even close to it, it is all of us suffering,” Pritzker said.
The Mayo Clinic Health System, a Midwest network of hospitals and clinics run by the world-renowned Mayo Clinic, reported that 905 staff members have been diagnosed with COVID-19 in the past two weeks.
Dr. Amy Williams, executive dean of Mayo Clinic Practice, said the vast majority were exposed in the community and not at work.
“It shows how widely spread this is in our communities and how easy it is to get COVID-19 in the communities here in the Midwest,” she said.
In Kansas, 178 employees and doctors at a Topeka hospital had active coronavirus cases or were isolated and on leave because of contact with someone who had coronavirus. And the University of Kansas Hospital in Kansas City and nearby clinics had 206 employees, including physicians, nurses and support staff, out as of Tuesday after testing positive. An additional 260 were not at work and quarantining while they awaited test results.
The positivity rate — the percentage of tests coming back positive for the virus — has taken on a more prominent role in the nation’s response to the crisis in recent days.
New York City shut down in-person classes in the nation’s largest school system this week after the positivity rate surpassed 3%. That angered families who believe it is too stringent a standard and question why bars and restaurants can remain open.
The positivity rate has soared to record levels all around the nation. South Dakota, Iowa and Wyoming’s rate are all averaging above 50%, and the national average is now 10%.
Health experts caution that there are weaknesses in the positivity data because states calculate the rate differently. But they say the overall trend is not in dispute, and it indicates severe spread and, in many places, insufficient testing.
CALDWELL — The Caldwell School District followed the Boise School District’s lead on Wednesday, deciding to move students into remote learning after Thanksgiving break.
The unanimous decision comes after Southwest District Health moved Canyon County into the red alert level for COVID-19 cases and follows the district’s original reopening plan, which calls for remote learning whenever Canyon County is in red.
Remote learning will start Monday, Nov. 30, and continue at least after Jan. 4, when students return from winter break.
The district currently is in a hybrid model, with students alternating days of in-person and remote learning.
The board will reevaluate the reopening plan on Dec. 14. Trustee Andrew Butler said he is interested in potentially allowing different grade levels to return to school if Canyon County remains in the red alert level.
Board chairwoman Marisela Pesina said she supported into moving into remote learning after watching the virus ravage through the Latino community in Caldwell. Latino students make up 64% of the Caldwell School District, she said.
“My community, their families are dying,” Pesina said. “There are vulnerable people in our community, no one can dispute that.”
Latinos make up about 13% of the state’s population and 24% of COVID-19 cases with known ethnicity, according to the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare. The same statistics are seen throughout the country, with Black, Latino and Native American cases of COVID-19 growing more than their share of the population